In a two-part article, Jane Embury looks at the future of architecture in civic building. Here, she looks at the toxic legacy of COVID-19 that may shape civic architecture.
Coronavirus has touched every aspect of our personal and working lives. Its effects will probably be felt for years to come.
While the country struggles back to work, financial uncertainty is dogging businesses of all sizes.
In England and Wales in the first quarter of 2020, there were a total of 3,883 company insolvencies.
Many of those were retailers, with more retail outlets set to close this year than in the whole of 2019. That was described by some as the worst year for 25 years.
As the furlough scheme winds down, those figures are likely to get worse. They’ll also be fuelled by lower consumer spending and online competition.
The poor economic picture is compounded by the strain on national resources.
Coronavirus and the impact of emergency policy measures are likely to see an unprecedented rise in UK debt over 2020 and 2021.
To put that into perspective, in 2018-19 net borrowing was £24.7 billion.
Already, borrowing in the current financial year-to-date (to May 2020) is estimated to have been £103.7 billion.
The government is, of course, putting a brave face on the economic situation. It’s already promised £5 billion for construction and infrastructure projects.
The government’s £5 billion pledge is welcome, and we have cautiously welcomed it. But the UK still needs major infrastructure investment to meet energy security, and major transportation plans.
That’s not to mention the investments needed to deal with such issues as climate change and an ageing population.
The problem dates back a few years, in the decisions taken by government in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.
In the years that followed, the National Audit Office, the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Institute of Fiscal Studies all said that government investment in infrastructure was diminishing.
The importance of public sector expenditure cannot be underestimated as it makes up well over 30% of the UK’s expenditure on construction.
Cost and function
But the poor state of our public finances could have a major, and unintended consequence.
Because civic architecture – whether a school, hospital or job centre – shouldn’t just be about cost and function.
National planning guidance states that “achieving good design is about creating places, buildings, or spaces that work well.” It also says that buildings must ” look good, last well, and will adapt to the needs of future generations. Good design responds in a practical and creative way to both the function and identity of a place.”
In other words, civic design, as with all architecture, is about balancing form and function. The completed building should look good from the outside and perform well on the inside.
But in the new austerity that lies ahead, will initial cost be the determining factor in all public construction projects?
That could mean that, while COVID-19 will pass, we will see architectural vision compromised by the perceived need to keep costs to a minimum.
If so, the toxic legacy that coronavirus may leave behind in our public buildings could last a very, very long time.
In the second part of this article, Jane will look at the balance between construction and lifetime cost, and why we should preserve architectural integrity.